Until this year, a frugal NHL team could never afford stars like Teemu Selanne and Paul Kariya. The pair made a total of $16.5-million in 2002-03. That's over half the payroll in Edmonton or Minnesota.
This summer it's different. The former Anaheim team mates offered their services at the very affordable rate of $7-million combined for one year. But the low-budget GM is still out in the cold, because Kariya and Selanne would only cut their fees for one of the NHL's fattest cats: the Colorado Avalanche.
As expected, NHL free agents command more modest salaries in 2003 than in recent years. But the stars are still migrating to the wealthy teams. The only difference is that by accepting a little less money, they leave their new employers with enough cash to get even stronger. In welcoming the dynamic duo, Colorado GM Pierre Lacroix - smiling like a man who found a winning lottery ticket in his back pocket - predicted no more "drastic changes" for the Avalanche. But does anyone expect the 2004 Stanley Cup Playoffs to begin with Phil Sauve or David Aebischer in the Colorado net?
The Kariya-Selanne Discount Combo was an exclusive offer. "When I was made unrestricted and I spoke to Teemu, and we talked about what would be the best situation for us hockey-wise, both of us (said) Colorado instantly," Kariya told the press conference.
Can't fault the logic. The two players have logged 20 NHL seasons between them, neither getting within a sniff of the Stanley Cup until the Mighty Ducks made their spectacular run to the brink a few weeks ago. Kariya knows that isn't likely to happen again.
So they called the stacked team. Lacroix only had to pick up the phone and accept the gift: "Two cheap superstars? Okay." It's a good deal for the players, too. After all, they'll be free again next summer. Kariya takes the biggest pay cut in NHL history - $10-million to $1.2-million - but it is a calculated sacrifice. He qualifies as an unrestricted free agent next year only if he makes less than the NHL average salary, and $1.2-million gets him below that mark.
Is Colorado the early Stanley Cup favorite? Only if the star-studded forward cast is willing to backcheck. The Avalanche defense looks thin and life without Patrick Roy could hold unpleasant surprises.
But they will score the prettiest goals in the NHL, that's for sure. Anaheim general manager Brian Murray was disappointed by today's news, suggesting that his offer to Kariya and Selanne was competitive with Colorado's. But Murray could not offer Rob Blake on the point, or Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg as possible linemates, or Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay on the power play.
So for the NHL's modest spenders, the cost-conscious summer of 2003 delivers a new message: If the stars want big money, you're out of luck. If they are willing to settle for less, you're still out of luck.